While most of the Navy SEALs court-martial story will play out in 2010, it has still been significant enough to make 2009’s top-10 list.
Three Navy SEALs who captured the terrorist leader Ahmed Hashim Abed were offered NJP for events that allegedly occurred in Iraq after Abed was in detention. One of the SEALs — SO2 McCabe — was charged with assaulting Abed by punching him in the stomach. SO2 McCabe is also charged with making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t assault Abed or see anyone else assault Abed. Finally, SO2 McCabe is charged wtih willful dereliction of duty by failing to safeguard a detainee. SO2 Keefe is charged with a similar dereliction charge and spec and making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t see anyone assault or abuse Abed. SO1 Huertas is charged with a similar dereliction charge and spec, making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t see anyone “display aggressive behavior toward” Abed, and an Article 134 offense of wrongfully endeavording to impede an investigation.
All three refused NJP. The Commanding General of Special Operations Command Central then referred all three cases to special courts-martial. Then all hell broke loose. Fox News reported the story and it’s been featured prominently in conservative media outlets and blogs. Two groups of House members sent letters to Secretary of Defense Gates and Major General Cleveland — the convening authority — asking that charges be dropped. A protest was also held outside Naval Station Norfolk, where the three are being prosecuted. And in response to a question from CNSNews, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that President Obama won’t intervene in the cases.
All three SEALs have now been arraigned, with our friend LCDR Jason Grover serving as a TC. All three are represented by civilian defense counsel along with Navy defense counsel. The trial counsel have reportedly told the defense counsel that Abed won’t be produced as a witness at the court-martial proceedings.
Two of the cases are reportedly set for trial in January — though we certainly won’t be surprised to see those trial dates pushed back — while SO2 Keefe’s is set for 6 April.
This case is certainly influencing the public’s perception of the military justice system. It also represents an interesting intersection between the military justice system and our elected representatives. And it’s a study in the effects of media coverage on the military justice system. It calls to mind the case of First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, who ultimately avoided a court-martial due in large part to Frank Spinner’s deft public relations campaign. That campaign, in turn, led Colonel Morris Davis — who would later serve as the military commission system’s chief prosecutor — to write this article in the Air & Space Power Journal calling for the military to be more proactive in its engagement with the media in military justice matters to rebut — and even preempt — p.r. campaigns like Frank Spinner’s in the Flinn case. So far, SOCCENT doesn’t seem to be following Colonel Davis’s advice; its public comments on the case have been fairly tepid. (See, e.g,, here.) Of course, many would argue that the military shouldn’t follow Col Davis’s advice. But there’s certainly a cost to be paid by ceding the p.r. field to the defense — and the government may well pay that cost in these cases.
The SEALs cases will no doubt teach us a consirable amount about the military justice system and how to influence it both within and outside the courtroom. That makes it one of the year’s top 10 military justice stories–and probably one of 2010’s top 10 military justice stories as well.